Factory worker

Climate Change and Carbon Footprints: How Worried is the Average Consumer?

For a lot of companies spread across a wide array of verticals, it's a 180° change. It doesn’t – and couldn’t – happen overnight, but according to a long list of journalists, advisors, and writers invested in the subject, it’s really the only way to face the future. Fresh manifestos, an emphasis on local sourcing, EV charging points, commercial solar, going paperless, energy audits, carbon off-setting (an admittedly murky area for businesses) – there is a lot a business can and (apparently) should be doing. 

At the same time, however, some of the most prominent brands remain the most harmful. From the likes of Shell to fast-fashion houses like H&M, kitchen-cupboard staples like Coca-Cola and cosmetics powerhouses like Unilever, a decade of escalating consumer awareness over the topic of global warming has done little to unseat the ‘kingpins’ of the B2C world. 

So, why bother if the most prominent names are getting by on what often amounts to transparent greenwashing tactics? 

Consumers, Sustainability, and Going Green: What the Stats Say

While there are many brands that we could all cite as perfect examples of how not to do business sustainably – and most of those brands continue to maintain strong customer bases – the statistics tell a very different story. So, while it may not be evident in every corner of the supermarket and high street just yet, there’s every reason to believe that the future will be a lot more demanding of brands than the past and present combined. 

In the UK, around 20% of consumers reported that their spending habits had grown ‘significantly more sustainable’ between 2017 and 2022. By 2023, 25% felt that their habits were more sustainable than they were the previous year. 

Mintel’s UK Everyday Sustainability Market Report 2023 is arguably the most focused look at what the country’s consumers are thinking and looking for. It paints a compelling picture of a customer base on the very brink of transformation. This is particularly true when you look at the younger generations. For instance, ‘Generation Z’, which covers those born between 1993 and 2013, have demonstrated a keen drive for sustainability already, with almost 30% claiming that the environment represents more of a priority to them since the beginning of the cost-of-living crisis. 

This is in spite of the fact that one of the key hurdles that lies between consumers and a more sustainable approach to shopping, is cost. The cost of more ethically sourced clothing, food, and other user goods. Even the cost-of-living crisis is insufficient to deter new generations of shoppers from more sustainable choices. 

What are the Leading Brands Doing? 

A lot of brands are recognising the value of embracing a more sustainable ethos. It’s thought that around 35% of UK consumers are actively avoiding brands that they perceive to be environmentally unfriendly – and that amounts to roughly £150 billion per year. 

Consultancy decided to research over 40,000 consumers to find out what the general public considers to be the most environmentally friendly and ethical brands in the UK. 

Among those brands were LUSH, IKEA, John Lewis, and Gymshark – all of which have found various ways to make sustainability a core part of their public image. For instance, LUSH is no stranger to signposting their political stance on a wide range of issues. Their commitment to sustainable supply chains, vegan products, zero-waste packaging and recycling represents a key element of their brand identity. IKEA is a figurehead for making mass production more sustainable, using almost 100% recycled wood in their products. 

But, as Consultancy points out, consumer perception is only half the picture. We are all more aware than ever of the prevalence of greenwashing. That’s not to say that any of these brands are guilty of superficial sustainability, but that being a truly sustainable brand is about far more than the part of the iceberg visible above the waterline.

As we’ve discussed in the past, carbon neutral is a loaded term, one that is often substantiated by carbon off-setting practices that, in reality, represent a poor substitute for genuine action. Recent publicity on the deceptive wording of ‘carbon neutral’ has led to many brands having to rethink their sustainability commitments. You can read more about that here

How Much Change is Being Demanded by Consumers? 

It would be relatively easy to write off much of the current interest in sustainable brands as just another part of the trend cycle – a fad that will give way to something else, as is usually the way with rampant consumerism. As we mentioned above, plenty of brands that are doing very little for sustainability remain some of the most popular. The very worst offenders in the fashion industry include Zara, Boohoo, Fashion Nova, Missguided, and Shein, which in 2021, added up to 10,000 new styles to its app every single day between July and December. 

In 2020, SCM Globe reported that Zara had twelve yearly ‘inventory turns’ – between 300% and 400% more than the average competitor. Their success largely boils down to the fact that it often takes less than two weeks for a new design to reach stores – a terrifying concept when you consider how that impacts their existing inventory and enables consumer demand to scale to unprecedented highs. 

These brands still sell dizzying numbers of items each and every day. They have survived considerable economic downturn and remain a key option for a lot of consumers, not just because they tend to be more financially accessible than the most prominent eco-conscious brands (although, given the shortness of their trend cycles, that financial accessibility is undermined very quickly), but because the internet has facilitated a quickening of trend cycles that motivates a more wasteful approach to shopping. On average, garments are worn less than 10 times before being sent to landfill. Oxfam reports that more than 2 tonnes of clothing are bought every minute in the UK alone, while Green Journal reports that more than 300,000 tonnes are discarded each year. 

With all that in mind, it would be easy to conclude that, as consumers, we’re not doing enough. We’re all aware of the problem – at least, to some degree – and yet millions upon millions of products designed to be very temporarily loved are transported around the world every day. 

But change was never going to happen overnight – and change is happening. 

The Gradual Shift Away

Last year, more than half of British people felt that London Fashion Week was promoting overconsumption and wasteful buying practices, according to Retail Insight Network. 

The popular second-hand clothing app Vinted has doubled its userbase (and some) since 2019, with more and more people looking to buy and sell pre-loved clothing, rather than contributing to landfill. Penneys Ireland found that Gen Z are far more willing to repair clothing, with 77% doing so between 2021 and July of 2022.

But it’s not just about clothing. By autumn last year, almost 30% of survey respondents reported a high concern for food sustainability. According to Marmox, more than 80% of prospective homebuyers reported that they were willing to pay more for a sustainable home. 

There will never be a pivotal moment for sustainability, but there is a growing demand – and, with the physical effects of global warming growing more evident every year, we can reasonably expect that demand to grow louder and louder moving forwards. 

How do Consumers Feel About the Future? 

The Office of National Statistics reported in 2021 that more than three-quarters of British adults were worried about the impacts of climate change. The key link between fast trend cycles and rampant consumerism is not something that any of us are going to be able to forget, and brands are gradually running out of ways to portray an image of sustainability with very little action to support their claims. 

Greenwashing will entail more fines, a greater loss of reputation, and a gradual loss of momentum against competitors, across every sector. It is true that we cannot overcome the blight of fast fashion and food quickly, and every consumer will need to make a choice between continuous consumption and a slower, more intentional approach to dressing, eating, decorating, and travelling. 

But, while fear and anxiety are mounting, so too is positivity about the role consumers will play going forward. Surveys and polls consistently find that the overwhelming majority of us are willing to pay more to be a part of sustainable consumerism, and fewer than 10% are unconcerned by sustainability. We are also consistently finding that partaking in sustainable behaviours is having a positive effect on individuals, with more and more of us finding fulfilment and happiness in this new way of life. 

For brands, that should be a green light to embrace sustainability with arms wide open. 



Atlantic Renewables

Atlantic Renewables are a solar PV design and installation company, providing affordable solutions in Manchester, Cheshire and throughout the North West.